Now in HD
By Steve Tuttle
If he seems totally at ease in the ultra-high-tech control room that runs the statewide UNC-TV network, it’s because Carl Davis ’73 understands the engineering genius behind each of the many electronic devices required to make digital television possible. Given $65 million in state funds and a mandate to upgrade UNC-TV from analog to digital, he carefully chose each of those devices—from tiny switches to giant antenna towers—and carefully assembled them, like an electronic jigsaw puzzle. Now, 13 million people across North Carolina and neighboring areas need only an antenna to watch three channels of specialized public TV programming in crystal clarity, four if you have cable.
As assistant general manager and director of engineering for UNC-TV, Davis has labored nearly a decade to achieve this state-of-the-art quality for North Carolina public television. Funds for the mammoth project were set aside in the higher education bond issue approved by voters in 2000. UNC-TV is a component of the UNC system.
Carl Davis ’73
Delayed when the FCC dithered on implementation dates, the digital conversion now is largely complete. It has delighted many viewers, whose image of public TV for many was the grainy signal (unless you had cable) of the old Channel 4 Chapel Hill station. Turn on the tube anywhere in the state today—from the beach to the Blue Ridge—and you can watch the flagship UNC-HD channel, or UNC-KD for kids, or UNC-EX for science buffs, or an eclectic mix of shows on UNC-MX. A dozen high-power transmitters and a dedicated fiber optic line connect the UNC-TV studios in RTP directly to most cable and satellite subscribers around the state, meaning the quality of the HD picture they see is second to none.
“We have completed the transition to digital TV which includes HD,” Davis says. “We still have some odds and ends to finish, like the construction of an HD production truck and a few upgrades at several of our sites. Every viewer in North Carolina now has access to our digital services, including HD.”
Is he proud? You bet. “UNC-TV has grown into a tremendous resource for the people of North Carolina. We reach virtually every home in our state and many more in surrounding states. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to work with the great staff here at UNC-TV to help build this system.”
There’s been much more to the conversion than buying new studio cameras. Delivering a digital signal to everyone in the state required upgrades to more than a dozen broadcast towers and relay networks connecting stations from Wilmington to Asheville. One project was upgrading the broadcast tower for WUNF-TV Asheville atop rugged and remote Mt. Pisgah. “To get to the site, you first must travel on a really bad single lane dirt path for about three miles. At that point, you ride a cable car 3,600 feet up the side of Mt. Pisgah. It’s like a car used to take miners down into mines. It runs on a track pulled by a cable up the side of the mountain. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially in bad weather!”
WUNW Canton, the 12th and newest UNC-TV station, debuted last summer, also broadcasting from atop a mountain. “It’s got a bad dirt road, but no cable car,” Davis deadpans.
Getting the picture
Broadcasting has been a consuming passion in Davis’ life since he started hanging around radio stations as a kid growing up in Hickory. He spent so much time at WIRC and WXRC that when it was time to leave for college, his mother had only one request. “She said I should stay away from the campus radio station and focus on my classes. I honored her wish for three days,” he laughs.
Davis had about every job at the campus station, WECU. Another student hanging around the station then was Henry Hinton ’76 of Greenville, president of Hinton Media Group and a prodigious on-air personality at WNCT and other stations. They’re still good friends and beach-house neighbors. “Carl is one of the top broadcast minds in the state,” Hinton says. “No one, and I mean no one, knows more about the broadcast industry front and back than Carl. Only mistake he’s made was giving me my first off-campus job.”
During his senior year and for several years after college, Davis worked at WOOW-AM Greenville, where he hired Hinton. A job change sent him to Cary, where he bought a home and, while washing his car one day, met an attractive neighbor, Martha Liles. They married and he began a successful career in broadcast TV equipment sales, working for Harris Corp. and other leading companies across the Southeast. He was lured to UNC-TV in 1998, attracted by the challenge of modernizing a network that is some ways was unchanged since it signed on in 1955.
Although his ECU degree is in sociology, Davis is a certified Professional Broadcast Engineer, the highest level of certification in his field. His extensive background in the demanding world of commercial TV proved the perfect experience for invigorating the state’s system of public television. He understood how technology could serve the public good. “The best thing about our technology is that it allows us to educate, inform and entertain our citizens. While the symphony or the ballet can’t come to every town in North Carolina, UNC-TV can bring the symphony and ballet into every home. We can connect the people of our state.”
Catching the game
The other consuming passion in Davis’ life is ECU football. He and Martha, who have lived in the Raleigh area since 1980, are rabid fans. Since 1997 they have traveled over 119,000 miles and missed only two of the Pirates’ last 162 games, home and way far away. “The most special moment was in Raleigh in 1999 when the Pirates beat Miami,” he recalls. “There was just an indescribable feeling in the air that night. It was a feeling that there was something more important than football happening. I still tear up when I tell others about the game and the scene surrounding it.”
He remembers all the games, all the plays and the players. “The most exciting games were at Houston in ’02 when we won in triple overtime, and at UTEP in ’07, which was the best comeback and an overtime win. Both of those games had great passing with fantastic finishes. They were the type of games that made it hard to sleep after the game because of the excitement.”
“Martha is a UNCG graduate but she’s the biggest Pirate fan I know. She has more purple than I do,” Davis says. Hinton disagrees. “Carl might be the most passionate guy I know about ECU. Talk about involvement. He’s everywhere. And unlike some folks, Carl does it all because of his love for the university.” In one recent year, Davis drove from Raleigh to attend meetings on campus 50 times.
He has actively supported ECU as a member of and chairman of the Board of Visitors and now as a member of the ECU Foundation. He is a member of the Chancellors’ Society, the Pirate Club Sabre Society and an Alumni Association centennial member and board chair. He organized a reunion of all WECU alumni and was a founder of the CommCrew, an alumni support group for the School of Communication.
When they were in high school, Davis worked at WIRC Hickory with Tom Peeler ’73. They enrolled at East Carolina together, were roommates and remain close friends. Peeler, a Morganton communications industry executive, says he isn’t surprised Davis pulled off the nearly impossible of upgrading UNC-TV to digital. “Carl really loves a challenge like that. You can put something in front of him and tell him it’s going to be impossible to do and that motivates him. He’s a pit bull of engineering.”
The Davises and Peelers frequently travel together to football games. “We had a great time and a lot of laughs in D.C. [at the Military Bowl game in December],” says Davis. “We usually pick one away game a year in some place interesting that we haven’t been to,” Peeler says. “But they’re hardcore fans; we’re lightweights compared to them.”
So hardcore, Hinton says, that Davis hands out two different business cards. One is for his day job at UNC-TV. The other is his “Pirate” business card, which says that during football season he can be reached at Dowdy Ficklen Stadium, White Lot #171, Section 6, Row V, spaces 1–2.
Out of high school, Davis was accepted by Carolina and State and only came to ECU because “it was as far away from home as I could get and still pay in-state tuition.” But through odd twists of fate, his life became entwined with the university. “My biggest claim to fame at ECU is that I have known the three people in ECU history who are instantly recognized by only one name: Leo, Stas and Walter. I grew up down the street from Coach Stas when he was coaching Lenoir-Rhyne. The greatest honor I’ve been given at ECU was to do the introduction when [President Leo Jenkins] was posthumously given the Honorary Alumni Award, and then to do the introduction this fall for Walter Williams to receive the Outstanding Alumni Award.”
There’s a touching reason behind the Davises’ dedication to East Carolina. Years ago when he and Martha knew they wouldn’t have children, “we decided to adopt the 27,000 students at ECU. They are a part of our family. They’re bright, enthusiastic, full of energy and they seem to absorb knowledge like a sponge.”
Although he’s accomplished the career-capping task of taking UNC-TV digital, Davis continues to think ahead in TV technology. “I think the real question is what happens in the marketplace. What happens with mobile devices? We’re assessing right now what can we do with the things we have. We will try to do more external productions and do more things away from the Triangle. We want to go out and do more, bigger productions in HD that we can share with other people. If you think about it we’re able to go to Appalachian, or East Carolina and record a performance in HD and transmit it to somebody in Terrell County who has never had an opportunity to see that. It’s a big state and we try to bring people closer together.”